Sunday, June 18, 2017

Leaving San Francisco, Keeping the Poems

China Beach

I knew it was going to happen eventually: getting priced out of San Francisco. For the past few years, the SF housing crisis and its astronomical rents have been international news, and I don't live in a rent-controlled unit. Friends and co-workers, especially those starting families, have left the city in droves to find slightly more affordable housing. Others have been subject to suspect "owner move-in" evictions. In 2015, quintessential San Franciscan cartoonist Paul Madonna was evicted from his Mission apartment and studio. When my roommate and I got notice that our rent (which has gone up annually for years) would be increasing by $600 a month, it was time to leave.

I'm not a lifelong SF resident. I moved to the city in January 2009 with my copy of Broke-Ass Stuart's Guide to Living Cheaply in San Francisco (I can't imagine what the most current edition recommends). However, I am a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, and I wonder if eventually I won't be able to afford to live within a three-hour radius of San Jose, the city where I was born.

I spent a lot of time on the 38 Geary

In the meantime, however, I've signed the lease for a tiny but lovely Oakland studio (where I'll be able to have a cat!), and look forward to exploring a new city. And I'm not completely leaving San Francisco - like scores of other East Bay residents, I'll be crossing the bay every weekday morning to the Financial District, where I work as an administrative assistant. But I will miss the Richmond District, the "uncool" but formerly affordable neighborhood I've inhabited in three different apartments since first arriving in the city.

This weekend I hauled two large bags of books to sell to Green Apple Books, the Inner Richmond landmark and my favorite bookstore in the world. Afterwards, I stopped by 6th Ave. Aquarium, the crowded, sketchy store where a shark for sale inspired my poem "Wobbygong Shark $299.99." While saying a mental goodbye to the area, I thought of how San Francisco, and especially the Richmond District, has shaped my writing. Perhaps because of "write what you know" and the city's own varieties of beauty and ugliness, San Francisco is the setting for two of my (unpublished) novels and various poems.

Sharks and stingrays for sale at 6th Ave. Aquarium

When I first moved to the city, the places I explored on the weekends were mostly tourist hotspots. One favorite place to go was North Beach. There, I would eat cannoli at Stella's and browse at City Lights Books. A disturbing incident there became my poem "City Lights, Dirty Window." Looking back, I think of how differently I would have handled the situation as an early-thirty-something instead of an early-twenty-something (of course, the creep probably knew better than to target someone who would break his nose). I can now see the statues mentioned from my office building, where they stand as a reminder that art and darkness exist side-by-side in this city.

Corona Heights Park

Long before I moved to the city, the Richmond District was important to me. It was a family tradition to meet my late maternal grandparents for lunch at Louis', the little clifftop diner overlooking Seal Rocks and the ruins of Sutro Baths. My mom shares memories of outings to the long-gone Playland-at-the-Beach, where now stands the Safeway I go to for seaside grocery shopping.

One thing I love about the Richmond District is this proximity to the ocean. I live close to China and Baker Beaches, but sometimes I also visit Ocean Beach, which is the western border of the Richmond and Sunset Districts (and San Francisco itself).  In February, I joined thousands at Ocean Beach for a protest of the Trump administration. I tried to capture the feeling of this popular - but still wild and dangerous - beach in my poem "Ocean Beach, Late November."

Ocean Beach (in July)

The Richmond District is also known for its fog. While a bane to some, the fog, known as Karl to many, is generally beloved. I love and will miss the way light halos through it. The often repeated experience of going to a movie at the 100+ years old 4 Star Theatre and then walking home through the fog led me to write "The 4 Star Theatre." When the poem was published, I was touched to get an email from someone who had used to live in the neighborhood and had recognized the little theater.

With the fog comes the foghorn. The plaintive, demanding sound can be difficult for new residents to sleep with, but you soon get used to it. My most distinct memory of the foghorn comes from September 2009. A few weeks earlier I had undergone a thyroidectomy at UCSF due to papillary thyroid carcinoma (a type of thyroid cancer). I was back at my then-apartment at Clement and 16th Avenue, and was looking in the mirror, getting ready to peel off the final bandage from my neck. The foghorn made for a spooky soundtrack as I slowly revealed my scar.

The 4 Star Theatre

I'll miss my neighborhood. I'll miss the fog, the foghorn, the cold beaches, the views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Sutro Tower. I'll miss walking to the Legion of Honor, one of my favorite museums. I'll miss my apartment's bay windows. I'll wonder about the future of the city, which at the moment only seems interested in welcoming those making six figures. But I'll always have my San Francisco writings, and for that, I am thankful.

Sutro Tower

All photos mine.